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The Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program of BC

Coping & Support
Talking to Your Children

Discussing Death with Children

Parents and other family members talking to children need to be prepared to discuss death. There are gains being made in the treatment of cancers and other potentially life threatening diseases every day. However, despite the best efforts of our medical system, many people still succumb to these illnesses in the end. The possibility of death is a harsh reality for many patients with life-threatening illnesses. 

While you do not want to unnecessarily scare children that a close family member may die, if death becomes a real possibility, you need to seriously consider sharing this information with the children in the family. This is a complicated topic, and you may want to consult a Leukemia/BMT social worker, school counsellor, or grief educator first to get more information on how to do this effectively.

One of the most important things to remember is to take your child's age into account when discussing death. Pre-schoolers, for example, do not understand that death is final. School-age children tend to know that dead things don't eat, breathe, or sleep. By the age of ten, children begin to understand that death is the end of life.

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Three Important Points

  1. Try to use very clear, specific terms. Being vague will only confuse your child.
  2. Use the words "death" and "dying". Do not use terms like "sleeping forever" or "put to sleep", because children will think sleeping is like death or be afraid that if they sleep, they might die.
  3. Finally, please be patient. It will take a long time for a child to fully understand and accept any type of loss. They certainly will not understand the first time when you try to tell them.

Some of the information in this section is cited with permission from CANCERCare, an American national nonprofit organization. For more information, visit the CANCERCare web site, call 1-800-813-HOPE (1-800-813-4673) or email info@cancercare.org.

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